MOORE — President Barack Obama came to Oklahoma on Sunday to comfort grieving families, laud the work of emergency responders and offer assurances that the nation stands ready to assist with recovery from last week's deadly tornadoes.
“I want to make sure everybody understands I'm speaking on behalf of the entire country,” Obama said during a brief stop at Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children died when a wall collapsed on top of them during the May 20 tornado.
“Everywhere, fellow Americans are praying with you, they're thinking about you and they want to help. And so I'm just the messenger here today, letting everybody here know that you are not alone, that you've got folks behind you.”
Obama tours damage
The president spent about three hours in the area after landing at Tinker Air Force Base shortly before noon, seven days after the first of several tornadoes that killed 26, destroyed hundreds of homes and caused damage in excess of $2 billion.
He descended the stairs of Air Force One and was greeted by Gov. Mary Fallin, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, and several other local officials.
He spoke briefly at a rope line on the tarmac with several Tinker employees, both military and civilian, whose off-base homes were damaged or destroyed by the tornadoes.
From the base, the president's motorcade drove 20 minutes to Moore, scene of some of the worst destruction.
Along the route, people lined the roadways, many waving small American flags and taking photographs. The vehicles stopped on Eagle Drive.
The president walked grim-faced for about a block along a street of utter devastation with debris piles, some 20 feet high, as far as the eye could see. He was accompanied by Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis and other officials.
The entourage made its way to Plaza Towers school where the president, his white-shirt sleeves rolled up, first gave a long hug to Principal Amy Simpson and spoke with her for several minutes.
He also talked with Moore School Superintendent Suzy Pierce, Shelley Jaques-McMillin, principal of Briarwood Elementary, which also was badly damaged, and several others, including Scott Lewis, who was able to get his son, Zachary, out of school and into a storm shelter in the nick of time.
“He just wanted to speak to the boy and tell him how brave he was,” Lewis said.
“Told us everything will be OK. And he reassured us. We told him how great FEMA was and the first responders.”
The president then took a brief tour of the school site and afterward said the damage was hard to comprehend.
He commended Simpson and Jaques-McMillin.
“Because of their quick response, their keeping a level head, their putting kids first saved a lot of people,” he said.
He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has registered 4,200 people for disaster assistance and approved $3.4 million in direct aid.
He said about 1,200 homes had been destroyed and 12,000 more damaged. He said it will take a long time for the community to rebuild.
“This is a strong community with strong character,” Obama said of Moore.
“There's no doubt they're going to bounce back.”
He urged every American to donate to the Red Cross. He then told the story of a Bible found in rubble after the tornadoes that was open to words that read: “A man will be as a hiding place from the wind, and a cover from the tempest.”
“And it's a reminder, as Scripture often is, that God has a plan, and it's important, though, that we also recognize we're an instrument of his will,” Obama said. “And we need to know that as fellow Americans, we're going to be there as shelter from the storm for the people of Moore ...
“We know Moore is going to come back stronger from this tragedy,” Obama said. “And I want folks affected throughout Oklahoma to know we're going to be with you every step of the way.”
‘Rooting for you'
The motorcade then drove a few minutes to Moore Fire Station No. 1, which has served as a command center during the disaster. The flag at the station was flying at half-mast. Obama thanked relief and aid workers, telling them he was proud of their efforts.
“When we say we're committed to being here until the work is completed, we mean it,” he said.
“Everybody across the country is rooting for you.”
Afterward, the president met in private at the station for about 30 minutes with several family members of the children killed at Plaza Towers.
The motorcade then returned to Tinker Air Force Base, where the president again greeted military personnel on the tarmac and shook hands with Fallin and Cole before walking back to Air Force One.
Before boarding the plane, Obama greeted several weather forecasters from the Norman office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Storm Prediction Center in Norman. He posed for a picture with the forecasters before bounding up the stairs, turning and waving with his left hand and boarding Air Force One.
The plane was airborne at 2:45 p.m.